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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: 1989 – PART 3

Written By:

Alan Boon
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, 1989

Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. They hit the schedules alongside established shows, hoping for a long run, but it’s not always to be, and for every Street Hawk there’s two Manimals. But here at STARBURST we celebrate their existence and mourn their departure, drilling down into the new season’s entertainment with equal opportunities square eyes… these are The Telephemera Years!

1989-90

America loved to laugh in 1989, with CBS’ sole hit show 60 Minutes the only non-comedy show to make a top ten dominated by NBC’s The Cosby Show, A Different World, and Golden Girls, and ABC’s Roseanne and The Wonder Years. Waiting in the wings were both The Simpsons and Seinfeld (making their debuts on Fox and NBC, respectively), while Kids in the Hall was arriving on HBO for some weird, surreal fun (and gayness).

Kids in the Hall wasn’t as weird as TV would get in 1989 with Twin Peaks bursting onto ABC, although even that show – and its slightly less weird and definitely warmer (if not weather-wise) cousin Northern Exposure – might have been outdone by the sight of SO MUCH SPANDEX over on American Gladiators. Friday the 13th: the Series and Freddy’s Nightmares were both bowing out of first-run syndication, but horror anthology fans were treated to HBO’s Tales from the Crypt as a more than adequate replacement. All those shows secured places on the schedule for 1989 and beyond but what about those that didn’t? This is the story of 1989’s unsold pilots…

A Little Bit Strange (NBC): Free Spirit wasn’t the only family sitcom featuring a witch to be pitched for the Fall 1989 season but A Little Bit Strange was a little bit different. Sadly still rare for the late 1980s, it had an all-Black cast – including a young Martin Lawrence – and tipped the usual “witch in a family of normal people” trope on its head by introducing its sole non-magical character to a family of witches…

Hill Street Blues‘s Michael Warren played Ben Masterson, a newly re-married man who brings his wife home to meet his family for the first time. Ben is a warlock, his daughter Tasha (Cherie Johnson) a witch, grandma’s a psychic, and so on. Yes, this is The Munsters seen through the eyes of Marilyn, with Vanessa (Coming 2 America) Bell’s character – also a Marilyn – our proxy into the world of (Black) magic, although she mostly seems to be the target of Tasha’s cruel pranks.

A Little Bit Strange, 1989

The show was the brainchild of former Family Ties scripter Stephen J Curwick (who also wrote Police Academy 5 and 6) and poet Sharee Anne Gorman, developed by Punky Brewster creator David W Duclon, with a pilot episode directed by Jack Shea, who had helmed over one hundred episodes of The Jeffersons, US TV’s first big Black sitcom.

The pilot aired on NBC on April 23rd 1989 in the slot usually filled by ALF and 227 but ratings were not what they had hoped, with critics calling the show over-gimmicky. America just wasn’t ready for a show about African-American monsters, it seemed, although Duclon’s next work on Family Matters did introduce the world to Urkel, so the jury is still out on that.

Nick Knight (CBS): To say Rick Springfield had an interesting career is something of an understatement. A teen music star in his native Australia, Springfield moved to the US in 1972, earning his first stateside hit single with “Speak to the Sky”, following it up with the album Beginnings, which reached number 35 on the Billboard charts. His Us label marketed Springfield as a teen pop star in the mould of David Cassidy but further musical success eluded him as he instead concentrated on acting, making guest appearances on a number of shows and projects, including Saga of a Star World, which was later tweaked to become Battlestar Galactica.

In 1981, he was cast on General Hospital, reigniting his career and leading to a string of hit singles and albums including “Jessie’s Girl” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers”, but found himself falling out of fashion by the end of the decade, turning once more to acting. Nick Knight saw him star as the eponymous detective, a vampire working the night shift for the LAPD. Knight is tired of his life, of hundreds of years of fighting the urge to kill, wanting nothing more than to return to human again.

Nick Knight, 1989

As the pilot opens, Knight’s moping is interrupted by the discovery of four dead bodies, all drained of blood and seemingly the work of… a vampire! Can Nick Knight work alongside his new partner (John Hughes regular John Kapelos) and thwart his eternal nemesis LaCroix? Well, that’s the basis for a series, isn’t it? Except Nick Knight didn’t get picked up. The pilot aired as a TV movie in August 1989 but CBS were less than happy with the results and put the project back on the shelf.

Springfield moved on to other projects, eventually turning up as DC Comics’ Human Target in 1992, and creators Barney Cohen and James D Parriott continued to tweak their premise. In 1992, CBS went back to the pair and ordered a series to be produced in Canada, retitled Forever Knight. Only John Kapelos returned from the original cast, with Geraint Wyn Davies in the title role, and the series eventually ran for three seasons, his final showdown with LaCroix left deliberately ambiguous…

The Gifted One (NBC): That The Gifted One is such a slow burn of a pilot is both a gift and a curse. It was unusual to see a premise given such room to breathe – the story here is of a young boy who develops fantastic abilities and then goes on a search for his birth mother – but the lack of urgency and cautious build obviously turned network executives off ordering a full series.

Peter Kowanko plays Michael Grant as he reaches adulthood and the parents who raised him pass away. Michael is prodded by government scientists to discover how he is able to do such seemingly magical things – healing pets, scaring bullies, being good at baseball – and they discover that he is able to use 100% of his brain, unlike most of the human race (insert snark here). The government are obviously interested in using Michael’s abilities but the pilot, which was aired as an NBC Sunday Night Movie in June 1989, ends with him escaping the government with the help of the doctor who switched him at birth.

The Gifted One, 1989

You’d imagine that a full series would have seen Michael moving from town to town, helping out people in trouble and slowly piecing it all together, with John-Rhys Davies’s Dr Boardman hot on his trail, but NBC passed on a full series order, perhaps fearing it might be too similar to Highway to Heaven, which had just ended its run on the network, or The Incredible Hulk, which they were trying to relaunch.

The Gifted One was the sole result of a writing partnership between Lisa James and Richard Rothstein, with James returning to the theatre afterwards. Rothstein returned to work on The Hitchhiker, the show he co-created for HBO, later scripting Universal Soldier for Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren to smoulder in. Kowanko pretty much retired after the show failed to find a place on the schedule, with just three further credits to his name, and it was last reported that he was living an ordinary family life in Utah, something Michael Grant could only had dreamed of…

Adventures in Babysitting (CBS): If you were the right age in 1987 when Adventures in Babysitting (or A Night on the Town in the UK) hit cinemas, Elisabeth Shue’s turn as put-upon babysitter Chris was nothing short of a hormone explosion. With younger children catered for by Maia Brewton’s spunky helmet-wearer Sarah, teenage boys were taken care of by fifteen-year-olds Brad and Darryl, hopelessly in love/lust with the babysitter they are destined never to know in the manner they’d prefer.

Of course, it’s a comedy and actually pretty funny, and everyone does learn some lessons by the end, and it was probably this that made CBS think there was a potential series in the concept, ordering a pilot for consideration for the Fall 1989 season. By this point, Shue was off making the Back to the Future sequels and so Jennifer Guthrie was cast as Chris in her first TV role. The part of Brad went to Joey Lawrence, who had captured hearts on NBC’s Gimme a Break!, with Brian Austin Green (soon to star in Beverly Hills 90210) as his friend Daryl and Courtney Peldon filling Brewton’s helmet as Sara.

Adventures in Babysitting, 1989

As with the original movie, the pilot episode – a standard twenty-two-minute sitcom affair written by The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire’s Greg Antonacci – finds an excuse for Chris to take the kids out of the house, getting into a confrontation with a pair of hoodlums, but making it back home before the Andersons notice their kids are AWOL.

A full series of this stuff might have worn out its welcome, but we never got to find out, despite the pilot getting a decent 6.9 rating on its sole airing in July 1989. Guthrie, Lawrence, and Green moved on to Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Blossom, and 90210 in the next couple of years, probably thankful that Adventures in Babysitting never made it to series. The film was reported to get a remake as Further Adventures in Babysitting in 2010, with Raven-Symoné as Disney’s choice for the main role, but it wasn’t until 2016 that another version appeared, with a pair of babysitters played by Sabrina Carpenter and Sofia Carson.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (NBC): Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was even a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, comic book fans had to exist on meagre rations. The arrival of Superman in 1978 was a revelation, a page-to-screen adaptation done the right way at last after years of comics being treated as the lowest form of popular culture. As excitement grew for the release of Superman, Marvel Comics licensed several of its characters for TV shows, with The Amazing Spider-man the first fruits of an agreement that would also see Captain America and Dr Strange reach the small screen.

The biggest success story was The Incredible Hulk, running for five seasons on CBS between 1978 and 1984. Sure, the television Hulk wasn’t quite the imposing specimen seen in the comics (although Lou Ferrigno will forever be the first image that comes to mind for a lot of ol’ greenskin’s fans) and the storylines were more akin to Kung Fu than those conjured up by Roger Stern and Sul Buscema in the four-coloured version, but this was a serious entry into the annals of TV history, a long-running show that retained many fans long after its cancellation.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, 1989

It was no surprise then that, in the wake of Tim Burton’s big-screen Batman blockbuster, The Incredible Hulk was taken out of mothballs and revived for a TV movie in 1988. Intended as a possible backdoor pilot for a Thor TV show, as well as a precursor to a revived series for the jade giant, The Incredible Hulk Returns brought Ferrigno back to the role that made him (semi-) famous, with Bill Bixby also back as David Banner, the tortured Dr Jekyll to the Hulk’s Mr Hyde. The Incredible Hulk Returns was a major success and immediately led to the greenlighting of a second TV movie, this time guest-starring blind lawyer turned crimefighter Daredevil!

Rex Smith was cast as Matt Murdock, with John Rhys-Davies a semi-convincing Wilson Fisk, but the plot was too Banner-heavy; The Hulk barely appears outside a dream sequence, and it is Banner and Daredevil who take down the Kingpin in the final act. The special again garnered good ratings but it was clear that momentum had been lost and there would be no series spinning out of the TV movie for either Daredevil or The Hulk. The Hulk was given a third special – The Death of the Incredible Hulk – in February 1990, which did what it said on the tin, and Bixby’s death from prostate cancer removed any possibility of a surprise resurrection.

Next on The Telephemera Years: What the kids were watching in 1989… Rude Dog!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: 1966 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1968 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1969 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1982 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1984 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1986 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1987 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1989 (part 1, 2)

The Telephemera Years: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2000 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2003 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2005 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2008 (part 1, 23, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen

Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: DIC (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Hanna-Barbera (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Sid & Marty Krofft

Titans of Telephemera: Glen A Larson (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Quinn Martin (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Ruby-Spears

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